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Summer Fun Is Over for the French--The Bicycle Bandit Is Caught

Times Staff Writer

They finally caught the bicycling bank robber of the Loire Valley last week after his exploits--nine successful bank robberies before he was nabbed on a tenth attempt--had entertained France for more than six months.

Even the motive for his crimes satisfied the tradition of French crime. No need to cherchez la femme. Soon after his capture during a heist at a bank in the town of Les Herbiers in the Vendee region, Jean-Jacques Guillon, 28, who once used the name of a popular cheese as his alias, reportedly told police he had done it all for love.

“I’m sure it was the girl,” said a woman who identified herself as Guillon’s stepmother at the small family farm near Chinon, a wine-growing town in the Loire Valley. “He started seeing her about two years ago. She lived about 70 kilometers (42 miles) away. They were planning to live together.”

Another report in one of the regional newspapers suggested that the tall, sturdy Guillon (6-feet-3, 230 pounds)--described by his rugby coach at the Chinon Sporting Club as a “gentle giant"--may have been trying to raise money to save his father’s struggling farm.

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Either way, it was a good tale for the French press. Beginning in May, reporters for the newspaper Nouvelle Republique du Centre-Ouest began tracking the bicycling bank robber’s holdups. One reporter dubbed him the “ecologist armed robber” because he did not waste any fossil fuels while committing his crimes.

Another journalist, mimicking the breathless sports jargon used to describe the annual Tour de France bicycle race, described the series of robberies as different stages of a rigorous athletic test:

“He set a tortuous pace, but at each staging point the record fell. Twenty thousand francs here; 50,000 francs there. But the Yellow Jersey (the shirt worn by the leading rider in the Tour de France race) finally went to a little savings and loan in the town of Melle: 430,000 francs.”

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” the chief investigator on the case said admiringly. “One job and he gets 430,000 francs ($70,000)--something usually achieved by professional gangsters.”

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In each robbery, the system was the same. The target was a small bank or savings institution in a small town with streets and alleys too narrow for automobiles to give chase.

Always dressed in a blue jacket and a blue ski-cap and carrying a blue plastic bag--hence, one of his nicknames, Le Grand Bleu, or the Big Blue--the robber would enter the bank and wait patiently in line for his turn at the teller window.

Sometimes he would inquire about opening an account, giving the pseudonym Gerard Roblochon. Roblochon is a famous French cheese, but, as one writer pointed out haughtily, not a blue cheese--which would have fit in better with his color scheme.

Finally, he would pull out a revolver and demand all the money in the till. Money stuffed in his blue bag, he would back out of the bank and mount his faithful bike, not a fancy multigear racing machine but a clunky common vehicle with a bell.

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Pedaling furiously, he would beat his retreat on a narrow street, load the bike into his car, which bore phony license plates, and drive away.

Police had nary a clue to his identity except for a blurred photograph taken by a hidden camera at one of his latest targets. Coincidentally, police had been in Les Herbiers a few days before, showing the photo to tellers who recognized Le Grand Bleu almost as soon as he crossed the threshold.

Alerted by the tellers, two local police officers arrived but required the help of two passing firefighters to disarm the holdup man. On Thursday, Guillon was taken before a magistrate in La Roche-sur-Yon for a preliminary hearing.

The chronicled exploits of the bicycle bank robber have provided a summer of diversion for the vacationing French. At the end, they were beginning to be compared to those of the 19th-Century literary character Rocambole, a rogue and a daring thief created by author Pierre Ponson du Terrail.

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